Lynyrd Skynyrd is an American staple in music and southern rock culture. You’ve heard their hits, like “Free Bird” and “Simple Man” and, of course, “Sweet Home Alabama.” Or maybe even their lesser-known songs, like “The Needle And The Spoon” and ” T’ Is For Texas.” The band’s southern sound quickly moved them to the top of the charts and into the hearts of many. But the sad part about this band’s story is that the party ended way too soon. And not because they had a fight in the studio.
On October 20, 1977, they boarded a flight bound for Louisiana that crashed in Gillsberg, Mississippi, and took the lives of band members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, the pilot Walter McCreary, and the co-pilot William Gray. That alone is tragic, but the effect the crash had on the surviving members of the band had lasting effects and ended up bringing them to their own demise. This is their story…
Just Some Teens with Long Hair and Guitars
It was during the summer of 1964 in Jacksonville, Florida that Ronnie Van Zant, Bob Burns, and Gary Rossington met while playing on rival baseball teams. The trio became fast friends and one day decided to jam together after Burns got injured by a ball the Van Zant hit. They set up their equipment in the garage of Burns’ parents’ house and played The Rolling Stones’ hit of the day: “Time Is on My Side.”
After that jam session, they immediately decided to form a band. They then asked guitarist Allen Collins to join the band. Word has is that Collins initially fled on his bicycle and hid behind a tree at the sight of Van Zant pulling into his driveway. Once Collins was convinced that Van Zant meant no harm, they chatted, and he agreed to join the amateur band.
Deciding on a Name
The novice band went through a bunch of names. They started out as My Backyard, which was changed to The Noble Five, and by 1968, they were calling themselves The One Percent. In 1969, Van Zant wanted a new name after getting tired of the taunts from audiences as they were saying the band had “1% talent.” Burns suggested they call themselves Leonard Skinnerd, which was a mocking tribute to their P.E. teacher Leonard Skinner at Robert E. Lee High School.
Why him? Because he was notorious for strictly enforcing the school’s policy against the boys having long hair. Guitarist Gary Rossington even dropped out of school because he was tired of being hassled about his hair. The more distinctive spelling of “Lynyrd Skynyrd” was used as early as 1970.
Fun fact: The band developed a friendlier relationship with Skinner later on, and invited him to introduce them at a concert of theirs in the Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum. Skinner even allowed the band to use a photo of his own Leonard Skinner Realty sign for the inside of their third album.
Becoming a Top Band
By 1970, Lynyrd Skynyrd was a top band in Jacksonville, headlining at local concerts, and opening for national acts. They perform throughout the South in the early 70s, developing both their hard-driving blues-rock sound and their image. They experimented by recording their sound in a studio, eventually crafting this distinctively “southern” sound that was a blend of country, blues, and a bit of British rock.
During this time, the band switched up some of their members. In 1972, the band (Van Zant, Collins, Rossington, Burns, Wilkeson, and Powell) was discovered by Al Kooper of Blood, Sweat & Tears. Kooper signed them to his ‘Sounds of the South’ label, supported by MCA Records, and they produced their first album in 1973. The album, which featured the hit song “Free Bird,” sold over a million copies.
Personal Issues Were Taking a Toll
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s fan base grew rapidly throughout 1973. Their 1974 follow-up album, Second Helping, cemented the band’s breakthrough. Their single “Sweet Home Alabama” was a response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” Young and Van Zant weren’t rivals, but rather fans of each other’s music and good friends. During the band’s peak years, “Sweet Home Alabama” was the only single to make it to the top ten.
By 1975, personal issues were taking their toll on the band. Drummer Burns left after suffering a mental breakdown during a European tour. He was replaced by Kentucky native and former Marine Artimus Pyle. The third album, Nuthin’ Fancy, was recorded in just 17 days. Kooper wasn’t happy with the band’s lack of preparation, and they parted ways by mutual agreement before it was ever released. Kooper left with the tapes to complete the mix.
One More for the Road
During the Nuthin’ Fancy tour, guitarist Ed King suddenly left the band after a falling out with Van Zant. The band continued for the next few months with two guitarists as opposed to their usual “three-guitar army.” In January of 1976, backup singers Leslie Hawkins, Cassie Gaines, and JoJo Billingsley (aka The Honkettes) were added.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s fourth album, Gimme Back My Bullets, was released. Van Zant and Collins felt that the band was seriously missing their hallmark three-guitar attack. They auditioned several guitarists until Cassie Gaines began pushing the guitar and songwriting expertise of her younger brother, Steve. At the time, Steve Gaines led his own band, Crawdad. Skynyrd liked him and asked him to join the band. With Gaines now on board, the new and improved group recorded the double-live album, One More from the Road.
1977’s album, Street Survivors, turned out to be a platform for Steve Gaines. Van Zant marveled at the talents of their newest member, claiming the band would “all be in his shadow one day.” He was so confident in Gaines’ abilities that the album featured Gaines delivering his self-written song “Ain’t No Good Life.”
It was the only song in the pre-crash band to feature a lead vocalist other than Ronnie Van Zant. The band was ready and excited for their biggest tour yet. The band was scheduled to make Van Zant’s lifelong dream come true: headlining New York’s Madison Square Garden in November. But unfortunately, as they were riding the wave of their biggest album to date, tragedy was about to strike…
A Haunting Foreshadowing
Their 5th album, Street Survivors, reached gold within ten days of its release and would eventually go double platinum. The two notable songs, “What’s your name” and “That Smell,” helped the album climb to the No. 5 spot. The album marked a new era for the guys. Part of their success meant leasing a new Convair CV-240 aircraft to help them get between shows easier.
The original album cover happened to be very controversial. The cover depicted the band members in an alleyway, covered in flames. Van Zant and Gaines (two of the three band members to die in the crash) are completely engulfed in flames in the artwork, whereas the rest of the band are standing around in the streets of fire. It was a haunting foreshadowing of an event that was about to take place.
-An event that occurred only three days after the album’s release.
A Deadly Combination
On October 20, 1977, after a performance in Greenville, South Carolina, the band boarded the Convair CV-240 bound for Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The band didn’t plan on keeping the plane for long as they weren’t pleased with the sub-par standards of the plane and crew. As it turns out, Aerosmith’s band management had considered the same plane for their own tour. But they passed on calling this plane their own.
According to the band’s autobiography, Zunk Buker, their chief of flight operations manager, was inspecting the small plane (which was produced from 1947-1954) and noticed the flight crew passing around liquor bottles while on the plane. The combination of a poorly-built aircraft (with a thinner fuselage and smaller wingspan than any of its kind) an unacceptable flight crew was ultimately fatal.
They Didn’t Want to Board the Plane
Before boarding the plane, the band decided that once they got to Louisiana, they would get a Learjet to replace the seriously outdated 30-year-old plane. The problem was that Ronnie Van Zant, who was known as “Papa Ronnie,” had a major influence on the rest of the band. And apparently, he made them get on the plane.
When sober, he was fair and kind, helping out and sticking by his bandmates. But when he drank, which was often, he became violent and belligerent. When Ronnie drank, he was a force to be reckoned with.
On one occasion, he approached Billy Powell, the band’s keyboard player, and punched him in the mouth so hard that he knocked his two front teeth out. Why? Because Billy took too long on his intro in “Free Bird,” and Ronnie wasn’t a happy camper.
They Were Afraid of that Plane
Everyone in the band was afraid of riding on that plane. Cassie Gaines, Steve’s sister, who was also one of the unfortunate few who boarded that plane, would routinely ride on the equipment bus instead of flying. The bus was small and cramped, but it felt safer better than lifting off of the Convair CV-240.
The band members clearly had a hunch that the plane was bad news. Like Cassie, Artimus Pyle was notoriously outspoken against the crappy plane, and on several occasions, he would take buses to shows. One of the band members, JoJo Billingsly, was not on that flight. To her incredible luck, she was sick and was going to meet up with the band in Arkansas to continue the tour.
It Started Out Smooth…
There were 26 people in total on that fateful flight. Two of the crew members; pilot Walter McReary and co-pilot William Gray. The rest were band members and roadies. In the beginning, all was well. But everyone on the flight, except for Van Zant, was feeling uneasy. They learned that a few days before, some band members saw sparks as large as 10 feet shooting out of the right engine. That’s not a good sign.
Ronnie got severely drunk while on the flight, which was basically just another routine flight for this group. A little after two hours, however, events started to unfold. Marc Frank, a 24-year-old roadie, noticed what looked like fuel spewing from the right engine. Soon after, the plane started to jerk and shake violently.
Preparing For Impact
That’s when most of them, the sober ones at least, saw that the right propeller was no longer working. Terror engulfed the cabin, and the pilots were frantically trying to radio into the local Houston Air Traffic Control. They stated that they had a fuel issue and were going to have to make an emergency landing. As soon as it seemed like the worst of the flight was going to pass, the true nightmare set in.
Band members Artimus Pyle and Billy Powell went to the cockpit to see what was happening. Apparently, the pilots’ eyes were full of terror, and they told the guys to go back to their seats and prepare for impact. Following orders, the band buckled in. Gene Odom then took Van Zant, who was drunk and laying in the middle of the aisle and strapped him into the seat upfront.
Just Eight Miles Short of the Landing Strip
The pilots would have to make an emergency landing. As it turns out, McCreary and Gray were fully aware of the fuel shortage before taking off. There is speculation as to why the second engine ultimately failed. Some blame it on the age and poor design of the plane. However, it’s believed that the two possibly inebriated pilots were trying to transfer oil from one engine to the next when they accidentally dumped the fuel instead.
This costly mistake at 9,000ft above the earth was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Losing daylight, the pilots desperately searched for an open field or something that could be their saving grace. Just a few hundred yards short of the airstrip, as the treetops were approaching fast, the plane was headed for a Mississippi swamp.
A Surreal Scene
Nothing could be done to save them at that point, and the plane slammed into the earth. Billy Powell recalls hitting the trees at approximately 90 mph. He also said it felt like “being hit with baseball bats in a steel garbage can with the lid on.” The tail section of the plane broke off, the cockpit buckled underneath, both wings broke off, the fuselage turned sideways, and “everybody was hurled forward,” according to Powell.
Marc Frank, the groupie, remembers seeing complete and total despair after the crash. The plane completely disintegrated, and all that was left was a trail of debris and people. The crash took the lives of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, Dean Kilpatrick, Walter McCreary, and William Gray. The other band members (Collins, Rossington, Wilkeson, Powell, Pyle, and Hawkins), tour manager Ron Eckerman, and other road crew members suffered serious injuries. They also suffered as witnesses to such an accident.
Searching for Help in the Swamp
Powell, Pyle, Frank, and the rest of the survivors were badly injured and in utter shock. Without getting into gory details, you can only imagine the complete horror of such a scene. As the dust settled from the impact in a small Mississippi town (that eventually would become famous), the few conscious and able survivors were at a loss as to what they should do.
Artimus Pyle, Marc Frank, and Ken Peden, in walked through the swamp to look for help. As the three marched on, all odds seemed stacked against them. The pain and exhaustion was overwhelming, especially for Artimus, who had three broken ribs and major cuts. But the will to live is strong, and it helped that Pyle was a US Marine.
Like a Scene from a Movie
The entire ordeal could easily be taken from a movie. The sad reality of it, though, is that this actually happened. And with these men as living survivors, we get a rare look into what happened on that fateful day. A little after an hour of making their way through a creek, they found themselves staring at a small light in the distance. A small house on a dairy farm was the first sign of life that they came across.
The farm belonged to a 22-year-old dairy farmer by the name of Johnny Mote. He was outside, bailing hay in the twilight as he heard the crash in the distance. Mote later said how he thought it was “a car skidding in the gravel.” And when he saw helicopter searchlights, he started to think it was a jailbreak instead.
Getting the Help They Needed
Mote then hopped into his pick-up truck to get back to the house. He told his wife to get back in the house, too, and went to grab his gun and stand guard. And that’s why Pyle, Frank, and Peden were met with such hostility when they finally made their way up to Mote. Mote even fired a warning shot into the air.
The guys hit the ground and shouted with the only amount of energy they had left: “Hey! I don’t know who you think we are, but we were on a plane, and the plane crashed out there on the other side of that cow pasture.” Mote connected the dots and changed his demeanor. He assembled a convoy of trucks and four-wheelers to find the crash site and rescue the survivors.
After the crash and the press that ensued, their album Street Survivors went platinum. And since the album cover featured the band amid flames, the steps were made to change it. Out of respect for the deceased (and at the request of Steve’s widow, Teresa Gaines), MCA Records replaced the original cover with the album’s back photo. 30 years later, for the deluxe CD version of Street Survivors, the original cover was restored.
Lynyrd Skynyrd disbanded after the accident, reuniting on one occasion only to perform an instrumental version of “Free Bird” at a Volunteer Jam in 1979. Collins, Rossington, Powell, and Pyle were joined by Daniels. Leon Wilkeson, who was still getting physical therapy for his broken left arm, was there, along with Judy Van Zant, Teresa Gaines, JoJo Billingsley, and Leslie Hawkins. In the decades after that, some of the survivors passed away, while others did their best to hang on. But many were dealing with their own demons.
One band member, in particular, had a hard go…
After the crash, the extended band suffered trauma. But it looks like the founding guitarist Allen Collins took the biggest blow. Collins was the lanky one dressed in white, with long bushy hair, shredding his guitar during “Freebird” in one of the most famous guitar solos ever done. Freebird, which was first conceived by Collins and Van Zant in the late 60s, was the precursor to other epic rock songs like Stairway to Heaven and Bohemian Rhapsody.
Legend has it that it was Allen Collins’s girlfriend, Kathy, who asked him once: “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” Fans know that this became the famous opening line of the song. The band was at the height of their stardom when they played for a stadium crowd at The Oakland Coliseum in July 1977 – two months before the tragedy.
The thing is Collins was never the same after it.
Like the rest of his surviving bandmates, Collins struggled to find his way after 1977, and sadly he experienced even more misfortune. Collins and the other survivors didn’t get together until their one-off gig in January of 1979. During that performance, they performed a touching instrumental version of “Freebird” with a lone mic stand positioned in the center of the stage for respect to Ronnie Van Zant.
In 1980, Rossington, Powell, and Wilkeson joined Collins to form the Rossington-Collins Band. They had a female lead singer, Dale Krantz, who was recruited deliberately to avoid any comparisons to Van Zant. But as they were preparing to tour for their new album, Collins got some terrible news…
Yet Another Personal Loss
Collins’ wife had suddenly died as the result of a miscarriage-related hemorrhage. Collins, understandably devastated by yet another personal loss, entered a battle with addiction. It was a losing battle, one that would haunt him for his remaining years. After that, the Rossington-Collins Band split, but Collins didn’t want to leave music altogether.
He reemerged with Powell and Wilkeson as the Allen Collins Band. They even warmed up to the idea of reuniting the rest of the Skynyrd survivors. Collins even spent time trying to assemble a band that, for a while, was referred to as Lynyrd Skynyrd II. They also recruited Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny, to be the lead singer. But Collins clearly had bad luck, as something else happened.
Things Happen in Threes
As the newly formed group was preparing for a reunion tour in 1986, tragedy struck again. Collins, who already had several traffic-related convictions, crashed his car in Jacksonville, Florida. He ended up killing his girlfriend, who was in the car and left himself paralyzed from the waist down. As a result, he was unable to play music anymore.
Literally adding insult to injury, Collins was then charged with manslaughter. Not only that, he was supposed to appear on stage throughout the new tour in his wheelchair. It was partly meant to warn the audience about the dangers of drunk driving. But by then, his health was failing. By 1990, at the age of 37, Allen Collins passed away after a battle with pneumonia.
An Unrecognizable Band
An almost unrecognizable version of Lynyrd Skynyrd remained together after their 1987 reunion, but after Collins passed away, the band released its first post-reunion album in 1991, called Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991. By then, they added a second drummer, Kurt Custer. Artimus Pyle then left the band that same year, and Custer becoming their sole drummer.
A few more lineup changes were made, and all in all, their road remained a bumpy one. A number of band members found themselves in disputes and facing legal issues over the band’s legacy and the use of the name. There were also persistent accusations on the cause of the plane crash and the actions of individuals in the immediate aftermath.
Here’s what happened to the surviving members…
Wilkeson was known as the “Mad Hatter of Southern Rock” due to his fondness of wearing hats of all shapes and sizes onstage. Because of the crash, Wilkeson suffered a catastrophic arm injury, so much so that he had to reconfigure his bass and play it in a unique, almost upright style. He also broke his leg and experienced a chest wound. His heart failed twice at the scene, and his teeth were knocked out.
Wilkeson stayed close to his Skynyrd brothers and joined them for the tribute tour in 1987 and onward. But like Collins, bad luck followed him, too. On the road in the ’90s, while he was sleeping, Wilkeson had his throat slit on a tour bus. Guitarist Ed King blamed Wilkeson’s wife, but she claimed it was King himself who did it, according to an article published by Spin. The jury is still out on who did it.
Wilkeson didn’t die from that incident, however. He was found dead in a hotel room on July 27, 2001, at the age of 49. He had a liver and lung disease, but his death was chalked up to “natural causes.”
Billy Powell’s nose was nearly taken off in the crash, and he also suffered a knee injury. Yet the keyboardist became the spokesman for the band in the weeks that followed. He gave updates to both print and broadcast media on those still in the hospital. Meanwhile, he was with stitches that went across his deeply bruised face.
Like Wilkeson, Powell also joined the Rossington Collins Band, the Allen Collins Band, and the reunited Lynyrd Skynyrd. Aside from that, he earned generations of new admirers through his live interpretations of “Free Bird,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” “What’s Your Name,” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” He was on a break from their touring schedule in 2009 when he died from a heart attack. He was 56.
The sole member of the original band to literally get up and walk away from the crushed plane, Artimus Pyle’s physical wounds, only consisted of cuts and abrasions. A few years later, however, Pyle had to bow out of the Rossington Collins Band because he was in a motorcycle accident that left his leg broken in 20 places.
He later returned to the world of music as leader of the Artimus Pyle Band. This was before reconvening with Lynyrd Skynyrd from 1987 up until the early 90s. He left after the recording of Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991. Why? He said it was the toll from the continued legal battles between the surviving members of the band and Ronnie Van Zant’s widow, Judy.
Run-Ins with the Law
After that, the ex-drummer dealt with serious clashes with the law and even more court cases, all the while reviving the Artimus Pyle Band. He pleaded guilty on charges of attempted capital battery, and “lewd and lascivious assault” in the presence of a child in Jacksonville in 1992. He got probation. 15 years later, Pyle was arrested for not properly registering as a sex offender after he changed his address.
The case went to trial, but he was acquitted in 2009. More recently, he was involved in a proposed biopic called ‘Street Survivor: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash,’ which led to new legal issues. A district judge stopped the production permanently. Pyle was violating a 1987 consent order, which prohibited anyone from participating in a band-related project without at least three surviving members from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s pre-crash era.
Gary Rossington was the most critically injured survivor of the crash, having broken both of his arms and wrists, both his legs and ankles and his pelvis. While his road to recovery might have been the longest, the guitarist made the most of his second chance in his life and career. He co-founded the Rossington Collins Band, and then the Rossington Band with his wife, Dale-Krantz Rossington.
He became the driving force behind Lynyrd Skynyrd’s reunion. Still, Rossington had to deal with his share of obstacles and setbacks. The song “That Smell” was written after Rossington plowed his new car into a tree and a house after passing out at the wheel. He has since sobered up, but now faces a series of health issues. He suffered a heart attack in 2015 and had surgery to repair his arteries. He still soldiers on, waving the Lynyrd Skynyrd flag. He even revived the Rossington Band with a 2016 LP appropriately titled Take It on Faith.
Speaking of “That Smell,” let’s take a look into the genesis of the song. Both Collins and Rossington had serious car accidents over 1976’s Labor Day weekend, which slowed the recording of their album. It forced the band to cancel some of their concert dates. Rossington’s accident ended up inspiring the gloomy Van Zant/Collins song “That Smell.”
The song was basically a cautionary tale about drug abuse that was clearly aimed towards Rossington and at least one other band member. Rossington boasted that he was the “Prince Charming” in the song who crashed his car into an oak tree while high on Quaaludes. By 1976, with the birth of Van Zant’s daughter Melody, he made a serious attempt to clean up his act. But sadly, as we know, it didn’t last.
The Real Leonard Skinner
If you remember from the beginning of this article, the young budding rock band chose to name their band after their P.E. teacher, Leonard Skinner. The gym teacher and high-school coach came down on Ronnie Van Zant and his friends for keeping their hair way too long. At the time, it was considered to be anarchistic in a way.
But Skinner later admitted that his strictness was exaggerated: “They were good, talented, hard-working boys… worked hard, lived hard, and boozed hard.” Skinner wasn’t a fan of their music if you must know. His son (a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan) remembers his father asking him, “What the hell kind of noise are you listening to?” The muse passed away in 2010, at the age of 77.
Speaking of Muses
By all accounts, the famous lyrical war of words between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young was more of a spiritual debate between friends than an actual feud between enemies. Consider the lyrics: “Well I heard Mr. Young sing about her, well I heard old Neil put her down, well I hope Neil Young will remember, a southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
Young’s songs “Alabama” and “Southern Man” were centered on the South’s past of checkered race relations. He included references to slave ownership and cross burning. It seems as though Van Zant felt that Young was painting too many good people with the same antiquated brush. He responded with the famous “Sweet Home Alabama” lyric. But let it be known that both artists repeatedly declared their respect for each other.
A Recent Interview
As the end of Lynyrd Skynyrd draws closer, its members opened up about their final farewell tour and their infamous plane crash. It’s been about two years since Lynyrd Skynyrd announced that they would be calling it a day with one last tour. Calling it the Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour, it’s set to wrap up in May 2020.
It will be the last time fans can get a chance to see them live on a wider scale. Some of the band members claimed that a new album is still on its way, but questions remain as to how active the group will be once the tour is over. In an interview with Guitar.com, Gary Rossington and Rickey Medlocke went over a number of topics.
Why Them and Not Us?
Starting with the past, Rossington recalled the events of October 1977, saying, “I remember most of it, the rapid descent, the screaming, my friends in pain like something out of Vietnam. Waking up with the plane door on top of me… Cassie and Steve died. They were right next to me and Allen, yet we didn’t die, so we had unanswered questions as to why them and not us? We all believe in God because we’ve been through so much, and yet we carried on.”
According to Rossington, the crash is has been brought up every day since the crash. The main thing is that they lost their best friends. He says that’s the hardest part. “Our motto when we started was ‘If we don’t make it, we’ll die trying.’ And we made it but at a terrible cost.”
Why Keep Going?
Looking ahead to the recent undertakings of the band, Ricky Medlocke accepted the fact that the group could have wrapped things up years prior. “After all these years, it’s such a historical group, still playing music. People ask, ‘Why to keep going?’… I guess we could’ve stopped. But this is the only thing I know how to do, so I do it”.
The farewell tour is their goodbye to fans; to go out with their boots on, as Rossington put it. “We didn’t want to finish up by playing casinos and fairs, bringing our name down.” But he said that he has to be cautious as he has real heart problems. He said how Rickey’s only got half a lung, but he’s still wild on stage.
You Think You Know The Band?
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s history is as rich and exciting as the classics they recorded. There are lots of things that don’t have to do with the tragedy that fans might be interested in knowing. For example, did you know that Ronnie Van Zant had a real knack for playing baseball? Long before he would write some of the most iconic lyrics in rock history, Van Zant wanted to play baseball.
And the guy was good. Ronnie said in 1975: “I went as far as playing American Legion ball. The next stop would have been AA (minor league baseball). I played centerfield. I had the highest batting average in the league one year and a good arm – you’ve got to have a good arm to play outfield.”
Sweet Home Alabama
The song reached number 8 on the US chart in 1974, and it was the band’s second hit single. As I mentioned before, the song was written in reply to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” Ironically, none of the three writers of the song (Van Zant, Gary Rossington, King) were from Alabama.
Rossington explained the writing process. “I had this little riff… It’s the little picking part, and I kept playing it over and over when we were waiting on everyone to arrive for rehearsal. Ronnie and I were sitting there, and he kept saying, ‘play that again.’ Then Ronnie wrote the lyrics and Ed, and I wrote the music.” The hit led to two offers to perform on TV rock shows, but the band turned them down.
The Song’s Controversy
Controversy surrounded the song that Young wrote about racism and slavery in the American South. In his 2012 autobiography “Waging Heavy Peace,” Young wrote of his role in the song’s creation, saying, “My own song ‘Alabama’ richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. I don’t like my words when I listen to it. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue”.
There were no hard feelings. Van Zant, for his part, even wore a Neil Young t-shirt on several occasions. But Van Zant’s response was also controversial. He referenced the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, and the Watergate scandal. His lyrics: “In Birmingham, they love the governor (boo boo boo)/ Now we all did what we could do/ Now Watergate does not bother me/ Does your conscience bother you?”
All Tracks Except…
Anyone who’s a fan of the band knows that they rarely covered anyone else’s material. In the pre-crash days, Ronnie Van Zant wrote the majority of the songs that were featured on their albums. All the tracks on the album ‘Gimme Back My Bullets’ were written by Ronnie. Well, all of them except for one.
Allen Collins co-wrote some songs for the record, and the duo joined forces with Rossington on the rest of the material. But one of the songs on that album is actually a cover. It’s called “I Got the Same Old Blues,” and it was written by J.J. Cale. And it wasn’t even the first time Skynyrd covered one of his tunes either. They previously recorded “Call Me The Breeze” for their second album Second Helping.
A Big Difference
With such iconic songs, the album Gimme Back My Bullets quickly earned a valuable spot in Skynyrd’s history. But there’s a big difference between this album and the rest. Out of Skynyrd’s first five albums (from the pre-crash lineup), Gimme Back My Bullets is the only one that hasn’t been certified Platinum (or higher) by the RIAA.
Second Helping (pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd), and Street Survivors have all been certified Double Platinum, while Nuthin’ Fancy was certified Platinum. Yet, Gimme Back My Bullets is one of their best-performing albums on the charts. RIAA certifications change all the time, though, so it might eventually reach the one million sales mark to earn that Platinum status!